Why do NFL kickers now turn around and point to the sky with both index fingers once they've made a field goal? What the hell is this foolishness and when did it start? I saw both David Akers and Matt Stover pull this histrionic stunt over the weekend and consider it to be about the worst possible trend. Now I am wondering: when precisely does it become appropriate to presume the role of some higher power in the outcome of some aspect of an NFL game? An extra point? Two-yard plunge off right tackle? I mean if NFL kickers now see the hand of God at work in the only thing that they are paid to do and contribute to the team, then what would be a commensurate response by Ladanian Tomlinson for a four-touchdown, 220-yard rushing effort? A full-fledged revival meeting? A Billy Graham crusade? They penalize players for mincing around in the end zone — I'd like to see suspensions for this.
I can't recollect if pointing to the heavens is something that Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding does or not, though maybe I would remember if the Marty Schottenheimer had elected to allow Kaeding to attempt a 48 yard field goal rather than trying and failing to get the first down on 4th and 11 during the 1st quarter of their utterly wrenching playoff defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots on Sunday. The loss was quintessential playoff Schottenheimer: a trick bag of befuddling misjudgments and horrifically bad luck which has characterized his many, many excruciating post-season losses dating back more than two decades as an NFL coach (here is an excellent complete account: http://forums.chargers.com/showthread.php?t=26906
). During this time he has won 205 games — an absurdly huge number for a coach who has never made it to a Super Bowl — while simultaneously elevating the punishing season-ending defeat to the level of aesthetic refinement virtually unparalleled in sports history.
Schottenheimer is frequently and justifiably criticized for a certain erratic character that creeps into his game management during the playoffs, but then, can you really blame him? If you were fully aware that some absolutely implausible series of events was going to conspire to cost you the game in the final seconds — I mean if this was a veritable scientific certainty, as seems to be the case with Schottenheimer — wouldn't you start doing weird things like going for it on 4th and 11 in the 1st quarter? I know I would. I might go for it on every 4th down. Anything to alter the tides of this bizarre and unhappy fate. The next time I'm trapped in a lightning storm, the first thing I'm going to do is look around to make sure Marty Schottenheimer is standing absolutely nowhere nearby. I tell you, I don't want to leave the building that way — with ten thousand volts of pure electricity coursing through my spinal column like an Earnie Shaver's uppercut. You'd may as well stand next to Job himself as keep company with Schottenheimer amidst the elements. Who knows what kind of monkey's paw this man purchased at some point in his life, what curse he brought upon himself and his people, but anyway it's official: I like his style.
Like Kafka's Hunger Artist, there is a real craft to the way Schottenheimer loses these games. The early template was of course set in 1987 with “The Drive,” when John Elway famously drove the Broncos 98 yards for the winning touchdown to beat the Schottenheimer Cleveland Browns in the divisional playoffs. This hugely demoralizing scenario was improved upon the following year, when the teams were rematched in the AFC Championship game and Earnest Byner famously fumbled away the would-be game-tying touchdown at the 3-yard line with a 1:12 remaining. Here we have the first instance of what I like to refer to as Schottenheimer's “mature style.” While “The Drive” was essentially a platform for the initial stages of John Elway's ascent to legendary stature, “The Fumble” first introduces us to an essential trope in Marty's miserable journey — the poignant goat. Byner, an outstanding running back who was in the midst of a heroic performance, suddenly sees his and his entire team's fate cruelly inverted, and is forever associated with an instance of barely arrested glory. This is a work of passion, poignance, and not inconsiderable artistry. There is something vaguely funny in the way other teams experience gut wrenching playoff losses — the Houston Oilers’ collapse against the Buffalo Bills in 1992 had much of the antic unraveling of a Keystone Kops routine. Not so with the Schottenheimer form. Almost invariably his is the better team, outperforming their opponent on both sides of the ball before finding a way to lose under by dint of a surprise twist. There is never much merriment to this process — Schottenheimer is a weighty and austere dramatist, something like a Cassavetes or Eugene O'Neil.
Moving on to his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs, we come to see that it is not the team in question but very much Schottenheimer himself who is the driving creative impetus behind these epochal misfortunes. The 1995 playoffs brought with them the famous “Lin Elliot Game,” a visceral foray into human madness wherein Schottenheimer's vastly superior Chiefs were shockingly defeated at home by the Indianapolis Colts 10-7, after the kicker Elliot badly missed field goals of 35, 39 and 42 yards (no pointing at the sky that day). This underrated gem arguably represents the single bleakest moment in the entire Schottenheimer oeuvre — a spiraling nightmare of human futility on par with the finest work of Strindberg. A similar occurrence three years later is the closest the coach has ever come to working in comedy — losing at home to the Broncos and Elway, again 14-10, after a harried and spasmodic final drive led by quarterback Elvis Grbac came up just short of the Denver goal line.
That was the last time Schottenheimer lost a playoff game to Elway, but I really like to think of last Sunday's defeat as the third and final act of the trilogy which begin with “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” There is something of a young Elway to Patriots QB Tom Brady — not so much in style of play, but in the implacable fearlessness with which he compels his team to victory in crunch time. Brady played badly all game, but by the time noble goat Marlon McRee had fumbled away what would have essentially been a game-clinching interception, breathing new life into the Pats who were down right with six minutes to play, it was completely obvious to everyone who has ever watched Schottenheimer that the Chargers were going to lose. The coach himself seemed to know this most of all. Although it was manifestly clear that the play had been called correctly on the field — that McRee had indeed fumbled away the game — Schottenheimer painfully elected to waste a timeout with a replay challenge which had no chance of being successful. In that moment, it was as though he was challenging not the play itself, but absolutely everything which had ever befallen him: the last-second losses, the missed chip shot field goals, the ill timed penalties, the endless Elway tortures. Perhaps he imagined the video would somehow distort and redeem him, or that the replay official would vacation from his senses and deal him for once the big break which was surely due him by Karma. But alas, no dice.
After that Brady naturally caught fire, driving the Pats down for a touchdown, game-tying two-point conversion, and eventually the game-winning field goal. Kaeding's long missed field goal at the end of the game was an elegant grace note, mirroring the unattempted try in the 1st quarter with ghostly resonance.
In the immediate aftermath of the game — amidst the breath-shortening shock and disappointment that Marty had wrought yet again — there was talk that Schottenheimer should be fired. This is another completely unique thing about the man — who in the world wins 14 of 16 regular season games, loses a nip-and-tuck epic with one of the NFL's great dynasties, and still generates serious discussion that he should be replaced? He eventually agreed to come back for at least one more season in San Diego (declining an extension for future years), and one imagines that in 2009 he will take the helm of one more organization, turning it around from a loser and bringing it to the very brink of playoff glory. I'll always appreciate Schottenheimer for the thrills he has provided us, and who knows: maybe when the final curtain falls he will write a fairy-tale ending and finally achieve a championship after all. But for art's sake, I sure hope not.